That’s because the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Safety, a state-funded group seeking to upgrade drone infrastructure, landed an agreement to test drone-tracking hardware and software in the urban environment.
The program, which includes the city, state and federal governments and drone manufacturer DJI, is part of a broader, Nevada-based effort to serve as a testing ground for drone technology.
“This is going to be the foundation of what the future of unmanned traffic management looks like,” said David Hansell, public policy manager for DJI.
Drone tracking technology is important because of an explosion in drone usage, both by hobbyists for fun and companies seeking to fly drones for everything from inspecting infrastructure to delivering products.
As drone use expands, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airspace in the U.S., is seeking to integrate drones into the existing system of aircraft regulation.
Test sites are places where companies and pilots can test operations that aren’t typically allowed under current FAA regulations, such as flying drones beyond a pilot’s line of sight or performing autonomous, remote launches and landings.
The FAA will use the results of tests in Nevada and other sites to update regulations to accommodate broader use of drone technology.
“There are a lot of eyes on what we are doing,” said Chris Walach, executive director of the Nevada UAS Test Site and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems.
Under the program announced Thursday, NIAS and others will use a DJI AeroScope device to monitor drones in the air.
The device, which DJI donated, sells for about $5,000 and can track drones in flight and provide users with information about speed, direction, altitude and the unique identification of the drone and pilot.
Although drone use is regulated by the FAA, local law enforcement and other officials could use the device to monitor what’s happening in the air for themselves.
“What you really want is to talk to the person operating it,” Hansell said.
While today’s drone pilots are generally required to be able to see their drones with the naked eye while flying, future regulations could accommodate operations beyond pilots’ line of sight.
In such instances, the technology would allow public officials, or the public in general, to better connect a drone they see in the sky with the person on the ground operating it.
In addition to the AeroScope, DJI donated a Matrice 210 RTK drone to the program.
The drone, which sells for about $15,000, is marketed for commercial use because of its ability to carry a payload and endure poor weather conditions.
The drone will be useful for testing because its versatility will accommodate a wide range of simulated scenarios.
“It allows us to really test out that technology and to see how the drones interact with the sensors … in an urban environment,” Walach said.
Hansell said even if the FAA updates regulations to accommodate more advanced drone usage, there will still be a need to increase the human workforce to enforce regulations.
Like public land, public airspace requires oversight to ensure people share it safely and responsibly, he said.
That means as more people and companies put drones in the air local law enforcement will need more education on FAA regulations in order to prevent disruption of legal drone operations.
“It is really tough to ensure every law enforcement person knows every single rule,” Hansell said.
He said the FAA has a law enforcement assistance program, or LEAP, that educates local authorities about federally regulated airspace. But there’s no guarantee funding from Congress will keep pace with the increased number of drones in the sky.
“It is incumbent on us as citizens to communicate to our legislators that … you need to fund the FAA so they can have enough LEAP officers to do that education,” Hansell said.
People writing FAA regulations won’t be the only beneficiaries of drone-testing programs in the state.
NIAS, which is seeking $1 million in funding from the state legislature, is also pushing to expand infrastructure that can make complex drone operations easier.
Not only is infrastructure, such as sensing devices on buildings, useful for testing, it can increase the likelihood that companies will deploy drone technology in the state.
Walach said states such as New York and North Dakota are already spending tens of millions of dollars to expand drone-related infrastructure.
“Without that large capital investment we are going to be left in the dust,” he said.
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